Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time to Face the Facts: Newspapers weren't really all that great

At a cocktail party last night, a guy I met, a former reporter, raised one of the most common objections to Web-based news: "Sure there's a lot out there," he said. "But a lot of it is crap."

I hear mainstream media folks making this point all the time. But here's what bugs me about it: It assumes that everything that appeared in newspapers in the past was quality journalism. As in: "The problem with Web-based news is that, while some of it is good, a lot of it is crap. Don't we owe something more to the public, something like the fine journalism that has always been produced by newspapers?"

The thing is, a lot of what has appeared in newspapers has been crap. Don't you agree? Whenever I hit the road in the States, I always pick up local newspapers. From Idaho to Arkansas, Texas to Illinois, I'll always grab a copy of any local newspaper I come across. Not just the big ones. All of them, from the tinsy tiniest to the biggest of the big. For no reason other than sheer curiosity. I want to learn what's going on across the country. And even more, how people think and view the world. Nothing will give you greater insight into a community than what they cover in their local newspaper and how they write about it.

Based on those perusals, I can confidently claim the following: A lot of newspaper reporting and writing sucks. Sure, the topics they cover are important: The goings-on of local governments, new business deals, even local sports. But do most newspapers write about those things in compelling ways? No. Let's be honest. A lot of the stories appearing in newspapers across the country are either painfully amateurish or mind-numbingly formulaic. And as for the "investigative journalism" journalists worry will be lost in the digital era, the "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted...", if we're honest about that too, most newspapers don't do a whole bunch of it on any kind of a regular basis. Really. I challenge you to pick up any random newspaper in the country today (other than the biggie of the bigs), leaf through its pages, and try to find a single article that genuinely is holding some institution accountable or calling into question--in a meaningful, not just a taking-down-dictation kind of way--something being done by someone in power. Nine out of ten times, you're not going to find it.

So here's one more sacred cow that many newsfolks need to let go of: This idea that the demise of newspapers will be a terrible thing because newspapers have been performing such an important public service. They haven't. Or, at least, they haven't been performing it in such a powerful and consistent way that the service can't be similarly delivered digitally.

Photo courtesy of Scoobymoo. Creative Commons license

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